On Oct. 25, 2019, the art world lost one of its most devoted and prolific champions.
Peter Heyl Hassrick, “a titan of American western art,” died at Spirit Mountain Hospice House in Cody from cancer, cradled by his family.
He was a dedicated, thoughtful and insightful advocate who was also generous to younger scholars equally enchanted by the West, so-called “Hassrick mentees.” His passion was art, while his love encompassed family and friends, mountains and the vast empty vistas of Wyoming.
Peter was born April 27, 1941, in Philadelphia to Royal Brown and Barbara Morgan Hassrick. When the family moved West, Peter never looked back. He grew up in the Denver area, graduating from Lowell Whiteman [now Steamboat Mountain] School, skiing as often as he could and spending the summers as a ranch hand.
At CU Boulder, Peter met Elizabeth “Buzzy” Drake of New York, the love of his life – his companion, hiking partner and editor. Peter recently said to Buzzy, “The best thing I ever did was marry you, the worst thing is to leave you.” They wed on Long Island in 1963.
After graduation, Peter moved to Steamboat Springs where he taught Spanish and history at Whiteman School. Over the next five years their family grew by two, Philip in 1965 and Charles in 1966, and Peter found his true calling – art history.
He earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Denver and a master’s degree in art history, connecting his honed aesthetic eye with his passion for history, especially the history of the West.
His career began in Fort Worth at the Amon Carter Museum as curator of collections. Most significantly, in 1974, he co-curated and toured an exhibition on western American art and artifacts in the former Yugoslavia. Next Peter accepted the challenge of the directorship of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now Buffalo Bill Center of the West), where he spent 20 years expanding the museum in size, reach and renown in partnership with board chair Peg Coe. He set high standards for himself and expected no less from his staff.
After the BBHC, Peter continued to pursue his work with unparalleled commitment, becoming the founding directors first of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and then of the Charles Russell Center for the Study of Western American Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Next he established the Petrie Institute of American Western Art at the Denver Art Museum. Along the way he served on local, state and national non-profit boards.
Amid his professional obligations, Peter found the quiet time and creative energy to write (usually in long hand on lined paper) 25 books and dozens of scholarly articles. He lectured widely, curated shows that toured museums around the country and was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Wyoming for his scholarship. His writings garnered numerous awards as well.
Peter had a rich life, gathering friends and colleagues wherever he went. He spent 50 years thinking, writing and sharing his ideas about art and the West. He was profoundly committed to the precept that western American art plays a prominent role in the American art canon and dedicated his professional life to elevating the discipline onto the national stage.
He also believed deeply in matters of environmental conservation, to him a logical corollary to his love of the West and his astute and encyclopedic understanding of the artists who portrayed it. On one backcountry trip he remarked, “I’d rather be on a mountaintop on a Sunday morning than in the most elaborate cathedral that man has designed.” And most Sundays that is exactly where you could find him.
Beneath his professional façade lurked a sly sense of humor that enchanted and entertained us all. He often peppered his public talks with lines geared to generate delighted responses, to engage his audience. “So, a cowboy and an art historian walk into a bar….” He will be remembered for his sage leadership, his steel trap of a mind, his quick wit, his generous and playful smile, and his steadfast kindness.
Peter is survived by his wife Buzzy, his sons Philip (Brigid) of Woodinville, Wash., and Charles (Elizabeth) of Philadelphia, his grandchildren Silas, Aislinn, and Edel, his four siblings Morgan (Tess), Judy (Bob), John (Cindy) and Annie.
Plans for a celebration of life are pending. To honor Peter’s life, the family requests that those interested please donate to the Whitney Fund for Public Programs, BBCW, 720 Sheridan Ave., Cody, WY 82414.